Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Euronews channel, February 16, 2018

Friday, 16 February 2018 12:47

Question: Mr Lavrov, thank you for your time, regardless of your packed schedule. My first question is about US-Russia relations. After Donald Trump took over as president, these relations have become unprecedentedly tense. Did Russia expect something more from the Trump presidency?

Sergey Lavrov: I wouldn’t say we were in thrall to some expectations. Today there are many speculations to the effect that Russia has “put a bet” on Donald Trump and lost. In fact, there were pronouncements in favour of supporting Donald Trump’s presidential bid, but they came from politicians, public figures and some members of parliament. All officials, starting from the President to the foreign minister as well as other people responsible for foreign policy never placed any bets and stated in no uncertain terms that Russia in any case, in any country was ready to work with the president and the government that would be elected by the people in a relevant state. And this is so in reality. There was no guesswork, of course, and we could not interfere and we never did. They are still talking about some state interference in the electoral process, but I haven’t seen a single fact. The other day, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security in charge of cybersecurity went on record as saying that they had no evidence of Russian election interference during the latest presidential campaign.

Question:  Nevertheless, the investigation is in full swing.

Sergey Lavrov: You know, the United States has a very specific political system. I worked there for a number of years. It’s not typical of the United States that not a single fact was leaked to the public during almost one and a half year of the investigation (this was Robert Mueller’s investigation plus Senate hearings, with dozens of people subpoenaed to appear for hearings and interrogations). Had there been even a small “fire,” the smoke would have been seen at once. I think they simply have driven themselves into a corner by their statements about “detailed” evidence regarding Russian interference and in retrospect are trying to find at least some excuses. But they are failing even in this.

I really do hope that the dominant tendencies we are seeing in Washington will eventually peter out. As is clear, this is unlikely to happen before the mid-term elections in November of this year: they are preoccupied with a scramble for congressional seats and gubernatorial positions. It is also clear that the Democrats are still unable to recover from their defeat that proved a total surprise for them and are now using every opportunity to poison life for President Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party (but primarily for Donald Trump as a non-systemic leader). But I don’t think this is working as perfectly as they would like it to. For all the need to compromise, given the sentiments in Congress, President Trump is sticking to his guns. He has repeatedly confirmed his sincere desire to implement what he spoke about during his election campaign – to promote normal, mutually respectful, mutually beneficial and mutually advantageous relations with Russia.

Question:  But still no one coerced him into signing sanctions laws or sending weapons to Ukraine.

Sergey Lavrov: As I said, he has to compromise, given the sentiments in Congress. When a bill is passed by a margin of votes sufficient for overcoming a presidential veto, the rules of domestic politics come into play and the President proceeds from his relations with Congress on a wider range of matters. This is life. But it is sad, of course, that our relations have not improved during more than one year of the Trump presidency by comparison with what was the case under the Democratic administration. They have even deteriorated to some extent. To be sure, I mean the expropriation, the illegal seizure of our diplomatic property, which runs counter not only to the Vienna conventions but also all principles underlying the US Constitution and society – private property is sacred! This tenet was trampled underfoot and, as was said, we are launching suits in the United States.

Question: But are you still hopeful that the pragmatism you bet on will prevail? 

Sergey Lavrov: We said we would work with any government and any president. Pragmatism is making its way. I have cited some examples: our cooperation in space  hasn’t stalled, our interaction in Syria, although its progress is not easy – there are too many clashing interests – and yet, the southern de-escalation zone has been created with the participation of Russia, the US, and Jordan, and it is functioning well. However, it is still necessary to implement the agreements on the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces from the area, which were reached as the zone was being established.  There are still militants entrenched there, who are impeding the efforts to stabilise the Golan Heights, which is highly important for Israel. This was discussed during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Russia. In my opinion, an understanding has been found with him. It is important for us that the Americans perform their work as well, in particular close their unilaterally declared 55-kilometre de-conflicting zone in al-Tanf with the Er-Rukban refugee camp inside, which, as numerous facts indicate, is used as an equipment, training and recreation centre for militants.

Nevertheless, our dialogue on Syria with the Americans is rather pragmatic. We are trying to make them see that their earlier solemn assurances to the effect that they are in Syria solely to fight ISIS should remain in force. Because, contrary to what I was told by Secretary of State Tillerson, they are declaring that they will remain in Syria not only until the last ISIS militant is destroyed or expelled from there but also until a stable political process comes under way and culminates in a political transition (an euphemism for regime change), whose outcome will suit America. This is yet another manifestation of intractability, which we have repeatedly seen the US and its Western partners display over the last two decades.     

Question: In Syria, the interests of two NATO allies, Turkey and the United States, are diverging. Russia cannot help but note this. I mean Turkey’s operation in Afrin. After all, they are not hiding that they will not stop at Afrin.

Sergey Lavrov: This story emphasises once again the United States’ poor judgment, short-sightedness, call it what you will, if not ill intent. US special forces and other units have consistently remained on the ground in Syria for two or three years (that is, practically the entire period that the Washington-led coalition has operated in Syria). Their presence there is illegal, without an invitation from Damascus (the legitimate government) or a UN Security Council mandate. Since the start of their operations in Syria, the Americans have put their stake on the Kurds while ignoring Turkey’s concerns. No matter how you look at Turkey’s position, it is reality and has never been a secret. Ankara believed that certain Kurdish groups in Syria were offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey and a number of other countries have put on the list of terrorist organisations. All of this was known. The Turks have repeatedly said that they would do all they could to prevent the Kurds from taking the border between Syria and Turkey under their control. Nevertheless, the US has consistently armed, on a large scale, Kurdish units throughout that period, while disregarding the Turkish position. Not long ago – a month or a month and a half – they unexpectedly declared that they were creating a 30,000-strong, mostly Kurdish, force to maintain a border security zone between Syria and Turkey. Later they awkwardly tried to disavow this declaration, but the widely available facts indicate that this has not changed their intentions. Then Turkey made its announcement. For me, for example, it was not much of a surprise that this has happened. Ankara’s repeated warnings to Washington just fly over their heads.

One should proceed cautiously. The US clearly has a strategy that, I think, consists of stationing its armed forces in Syria forever. It wants to do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan despite all of its earlier promises. They are working to cut a huge chunk of Syrian territory from the rest of the country in violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. They are creating quasi-local authorities in that area, and are trying in every way to establish an autonomous entity under Kurdish authority.

Playing with the Kurdish question from the perspective of a narrow understanding of their geopolitical plans for just one part of this region, as the United States is doing now, is very dangerous. This can lead to a lot of trouble in a number of other countries where the Kurdish problem exists and where there are Kurdish populations. We should be working towards ensuring equal rights for the Kurds within the present borders of countries where they are, rather than trying to incite unrest in the region, something our Western colleagues have been doing throughout the past century.

Question: US influence in the world has been contracting under President Trump; we hear this everywhere. Do you agree or do you think that the US remains as much a global player as it has been in recent decades?

Sergey Lavrov: I don’t agree that the US presence in international affairs is contracting. President Trump said they should make America great again and put America first. But those who took this slogan as an invitation to isolationism or a renunciation of foreign policies were mistaken. Throughout the 20thcentury, or at least since World War I, the core of US foreign policy doctrine has been that no one should be stronger than America economically, let alone militarily. This slogan has been passed from Democrat to Republican and back and no one has ended it. No matter what slogan is chosen for a presidential campaign, the strategic direction of US policy is still the need to ensure full domination in the world. This is a fight for pre-eminence. The US military doctrine (one of the few documents approved recently) is based on this slogan and repeats this thesis verbatim.

Interestingly, US international presence is expanding rather than contracting, mostly in the military dimension. I mean Syria, where no one has invited them, and Afghanistan, where they have been invited but their 16-year presence has led to nothing good: the terrorist threat has not abated and drug production has increased 10-fold. This is a source of anxiety for us and our Central Asian partners, and should be one for Europe because drugs are heading there as well. The terrorists are spreading all over the world regardless of borders. The same is happening in Iraq. The United States declared it was pulling out of Iraq under Obama. Now a presence has been resumed and it will grow.

I am not even talking about how military preparations are being stepped up in Southeast Asia with reference to the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula, but on a scale far greater than necessary for containing the threat that the Americans see in North Korea. Clearly, this is being done with an eye to finding a foothold in the South China Sea in the context of the territorial disputes that China has with a number of ASEAN countries and seeks to deal with it peacefully through a direct dialogue and without any interference. Of course, the US military build-up there is introducing adjustments to these intentions.

Speaking of global issues in which a US presence evokes a lot of questions, it is necessary to note the global missile defence system, which is being created in Romania and Poland in the European segment, and in South Korea in the East Asian segment. Japan has also taken much interest in this project. So it turns out that this global system is creating problems not only for us but also for China. As you can see, US presence is growing and it is far from harmless.

Question: Participants in the Munich Security Conference will discuss the fact that the US has abandoned its role as a guarantor of international security, which entails certain risks for Europe, in particular, for Eastern Europe.

Sergey Lavrov: This conclusion still needs some rationale. What I heard about the US refusal to act as international security guarantor was that they began asking more of NATO’s European members, criticising them for insufficient financial investment in their defence sectors and blackmailing them by threatening to reconsider its commitment to protect Europe unless the Europeans allocate 2 per cent of their budgets for defence expenditures.

But in reality, the situation is quite the opposite. Fuelling Russophobia in relations between Russia and NATO, accusing us of nothing less than preparing to launch an attack on the Baltic states, Poland and others (only a fevered mind could come up with such an idea, but still; maybe some of them are, including those who supported these ideas), they used this absolutely fake logic to justify a very real deployment of heavy weapons and additional large contingents on the NATO borders with Russia. The Baltics started this off, now the same process is going on in Poland; Romania is building a missile defence base I already mentioned. Moreover, apart from the deployment of American, British, Canadian, and German units in the Baltic states and Poland, they are now talking about expanded deployment, citing the fictional and far-fetched Russian threat, to consolidate US dominance in Europe through NATO. This is the complete opposite of the original expectations you mentioned. These are words, and those are deeds. This deployment is open; it has been announced and implemented, and nobody is hiding anything.

Question: Over the past year, European countries and the EU followed the US lead to accuse Russia of propaganda, particularly of supporting populist ultra-right and leftist parties. Can a weakened and destabilised Europe be of strategic interest to Russia?

Sergey Lavrov: Of course not. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that we are interested in Europe overcoming its trials and tribulations. We want to see a strong and stable Europe. It is our largest trade and economic partner, despite all the negative events of the past three years. Europe remains our largest and most important investment partner. We certainly want it to develop smoothly, predictably, and steadily. We have many plans.

Europe has a growing demand for energy resources, which can be satisfied with the projects we are now discussing with our European colleagues - Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream. By the way, last year Gazprom made record-high deliveries to Europe. All the talk about the need to move away from dependence on Russian gas is purely political play aimed at artificially disrupting our natural economic partnership.

Incidentally, I noticed that the coalition agreement signed by the CDU / CSU party and the Social Democrats in Berlin contains a clause that the new German government will support the idea of single economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. We should welcome this. This idea has been voiced for more than a decade, and we must gradually move on to its implementation.

Question: It is my understanding that Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega Nord [North League], supports this idea as well.

Sergey Lavrov: Let me return to your question regarding radical or non-systemic parties. We never shun contact with anyone. This is a very special feature of our line in international affairs. For example, Russia is the only country that has maintained contacts with all political forces without exception in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. In Syria, we maintained contacts with the government and the irreconcilable opposition, which only wanted to talk about overthrowing the government. Their position has changed a bit, and these irreconcilable forces sent their representatives to Sochi and seem ready to join the talks, although this will be very difficult to implement. As I said, we never describe anyone as an outcast and have never shut the door on positive contacts.

Question: Marine Le Pen, President of France’s National Front and a Eurosceptic, has visited Moscow. What is your reaction when she says she wants the EU to disintegrate?

Sergey Lavrov: We see such statements as the opinion of a very large part of French society. Marine Le Pen got quite a few votes. Likewise, the parties in other countries that are similar to France’s National Front represent the opinion of a considerable part of the population. I consider it irresponsible to shun contacts when the representatives of these parties want to develop ties with us so as to find out more about our life, our solutions to various problems and possible ways of interaction with their countries, or at least with the regions they represent.

It is very easy to declare a country a rogue state , refuse to speak with it and impose sanctions against it, and, if the sanctions fail, to  crush it militarily. I am referring to the policy of some Washington hawks regarding North Korea or Iran. They lay the blame on Iran and denounce it as a terrorist country, disregarding the fact that the overwhelming majority of some 15 terrorist organisations that have been officially declared terrorist organisations in the US by a court decision see Iran as their enemy. Despite this, the United States is directing its anti-terrorist rhetoric against Iran rather than the organisations that are trying to fight Iran, among other things.

Inclusivity is a factor that should be applied not only in situations which this or that country considers important for itself. In principle, inclusivity must become a principle of entire international intercourse. I don’t see anything shameful in this. This seems like a shared opinion, judging by the activities of Western embassy personnel in Russia. They regularly meet with our opposition groups, including both those that are represented in parliament and those who represent the non-systemic opposition and are arrogant critics of the Russian authorities. Nobody prevents the Western diplomats from doing so. By the way, it has been a political tradition for Europe and the United States for many decades and has become the norm at the least after the Cold War. When European chancellors, prime ministers and presidents, as well as US and European foreign ministers come to Russia, their agendas include meetings with members of the Russian opposition, with serious and all but irreconcilable opponents of the Kremlin. Nobody asks if this is right or wrong. The opposition is part of civil society, and nobody wants to neglect working with civil society.

Question: What are Russia’s interests in the Balkans? How do you see the evolution in that part of Europe?

Sergey Lavrov: The Balkans is our historical partner. We did a lot to ensure security and statehood itself of many Balkan countries, including during the Russo-Turkish wars, as well as the First and Second World Wars. Our historical, spiritual and religious roots in the Balkans (where the majority are Orthodox believers) are responsible for the very good relations between the peoples of the Russian Federation and Balkan countries. In recent years, our relations with Serbia and Slovenia have made strides. We have maintained a fairly good dialogue with Banja Luka and Macedonia. Not so long ago, the period of the pause in relations with Croatia came to an end, when President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović visited the Russian Federation. I had a meeting with my Croatian counterpart Davo Ivo Stier. Of course, we are concerned about the situation in Montenegro, which is being thrown under the bus in anti-Russian efforts and anti-Russian tricks. NATO membership has been imposed on them, with their leaders flatly refusing to hold a referendum. In general, I have noticed that a referendum, which is the highest expression of the people’s will, of democracy, is becoming less and less popular in the EU and NATO member-countries. Perhaps they fear that the ballot-box will reveal a point of view that differs from the one that the traditional, classical elites would like to promote.

Nevertheless, we have always maintained good relations with Montenegro. I don’t understand why the Montenegrins needed to join this anti-Russian campaign. This remains on their conscience. We believe that the course for inveigling and “sucking” this territory into NATO runs counter to all vows that we were offered as Germany was being reunited, vows that NATO would not move an inch to the east. This is also against common sense because attempts are being made again to turn the Balkans from a “soft underbelly” into a zone of confrontation.

Question: This is about the powder keg of Europe. What about EU expansion?

Sergey Lavrov: I am sure they will not be able to turn the Balkans into a powder keg, if they don’t run into the problems they are creating themselves, including by turning the blind eye to the outrages perpetrated in Kosovo. These are special and separate problems. But just compare the facts: There is not a single Balkan country where the US ambassador in cahoots with European ambassadors wouldn’t demand that the local leaders discontinue friendly relations with Russia. They are doing this in public, most certainly in Serbia.

At the same time, look at what we are doing in the Balkans: We simply offer mutually beneficial projects. We never demand that our partners in the Balkans or anywhere else stop promoting relations with this or that country. Herein lies the fundamental difference between our foreign policy and the foreign policy pursued by Western countries. When they claim that Russia interferes in some internal processes but fail to provide a single fact to confirm the claims, I think that independent and objective media (and I put Euronews in this category) should expose the steps that the Western countries openly take, in the Balkans and elsewhere, to make countries give up their friendship with the Russian Federation.    

Question: Possibly by 2025, Serbia and Montenegro could get fast-tracked into the EU. What is Russia’s attitude towards EU enlargement?

Sergey Lavrov: We regard this as a natural process in which the countries that wish to join the EU pursue their economic interests, while the union will also benefit from market expansion and may well become stronger. It is true, though, that the current contradiction between two opposite trends within the EU will have to be overcome. One of them is to turn the EU into a multi-speed integration project. As far as I understand it, this idea is being given some thought in Germany. It will be interesting to find out the new German coalition government’s stance on the subject. France is rather in favour of strengthening the integrated core and relying on the eurozone. It is to be seen which path EU evolution will take. We will welcome any scenario which will render the EU more stable, predictable and independent in its foreign policy.

As far as Serbia’s and Montenegro’s accession is concerned, if the negotiations aim at integrating the candidate economy into the common economic and monetary space of the EU, and if the inclusion of newcomers into the eurozone is considered, then it is a totally natural process. Our Serbian colleagues are being told that all issues of finance, economy and procedure will be discussed with them, but their EU accession will be subject to their recognition of Kosovo and total support for the EU common defence policy, clearly implying adherence to sanctions against Russia and other anti-Russian actions. I would say that in today’s world such ultimatums are unbecoming, particularly on the part of an institution as respectable as the EU.

Serbia, like any normal country, wants to pursue a multi-faceted foreign policy, promoting relations with its neighbours to the West, East, South and North. This is a perfectly natural desire for a normal society. Serbia has fairly strong ties with the EU and, incidentally, with NATO, which holds numerous military exercises on Serbian land. At the same time, Serbia has a free trade zone with Russia and is starting negotiations on the creation of a similar zone with the EAEU, while maintaining contacts with the CSTO as an observer state in its Parliamentary Assembly. I regard the way in which Serbia’s foreign relations are developing as quite natural. Trying once again to force Belgrade to choose between siding with Russia and teaming up with the West means repeating the blunder that led to the Ukrainian crisis in which the entire nation was torn apart while the then president was forced to cede to a peremptory demand from the West.

Question: Which means that a Ukrainian scenario cannot be ruled out?

Sergey Lavrov: I hope that the West, which enacted that scenario in Ukraine, is now sobering up. It is perfectly clear to me that the West is now annoyed with the utterly arrogant behaviour of those in office in Kiev, anxious about the orgy of crime and corruption, vexed to see the presidential power slip into the hands of “war party” radicals and downright neo-Nazis. I can hear my Western counterparts say so in confidential discussions. However, they upheld the unconstitutional seizure of power at the time, and found themselves in a scandalous situation when the Western states that had endorsed the agreement between the then president and the opposition in February 2014 failed to prevent the agreement from being scrapped literally overnight. I am sure they understand everything perfectly well. Nevertheless, having staked heavily on the current Ukrainian authorities, and clearly seeing all their flaws and vices, they cannot openly admit to it without losing face. In principle, we consider the insistence on a choice of allegiance either to Russia or to the West as “medievalism”, contrary to the trend that we mentioned earlier, i.e. the growing understanding in Germany, as well as in other European countries, including France, of the need to return to the formation of a common economic space. We have repeatedly suggested that the European Commission start a dialogue with the Eurasian Economic Commission. The necessity of such a dialogue, as I understand it, is now beginning to be recognised, at least on the level of technical consultations. We will welcome this.

Question: The Ukrainian Parliament has approved the so-called law on the “reintegration of Donbass”, in which Russia is called an aggressor state and the territories in eastern Ukraine are described as occupied. Commenting on this, the Russian Foreign Ministry described it as “preparations for a new war.” Do the Minsk Agreements remain in force, from Russia’s point of view? What is your vision of how this conflict can be solved?

Sergey Lavrov: The Minsk Agreements remain in force from the point of view of international law. They were unanimously approved by a UN Security Council resolution, the implementation of which is obligatory. No Ukrainian law can overrule a UN Security Council decision. All our interlocutors both in western and eastern Europe as well as in the United States reaffirm that it is necessary to implement the Minsk Agreements.

The law on “reintegration” (that is the way everyone calls it, though it has a different title), in fact, does not mention the Minsk Agreements at all: it vests the Ukrainian Armed Forces and a certain united operational headquarters, which is currently being set up, with war-time powers. The final version of the law is yet to be published, but if we look at the versions that leaked out to the public, they authorise the military, security and law-enforcement representatives to arrest people without charge or trial, to resort to forceful measures and suppress unrest and dissent. Actually, I would say that this is a law on “disintegration” as it is directed against the logic of the Minsk Agreements, which require the restoration of a common public, political and state space through dialogue between the Kiev authorities and this part of Ukraine. Through dialogue and through a whole number of political steps, including the amnesty laws, the law on the “special status” of Donbass, which was spelled out by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Minsk three years ago, including the holding of elections in coordination with the regions called the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. None of this has been done.

Our Ukrainian colleagues say absolutely unacceptable things to their Western partners during private conversations. For example, it was agreed that all those who took part in the hostilities must be amnestied, and the Verkhovna Rada, in fact, passed the amnesty low a long time ago in a form that suits Donetsk and Lugansk. The president has not signed it, and has been dragging it out for three years. The Europeans are now hinting to us that during talks with the Ukrainians (actually, the Ukrainian side says this during meetings of the Contact Group) they say they are ready to conduct an amnesty under the 1996 law, which means that on the basis of the then Ukrainian legislation, exclusively on an individual basis, after restoring full control over the entire territory, the Ukrainian authorities will kindly decide who will and who will not be amnestied. Does this approach signal that the Ukrainian authorities are interested in a dialogue with these territories? They proclaimed these territories an anti-terrorist operation zone. Although, no one from Donetsk or Lugansk attacked the rest of Ukraine, but just the opposite, Ukraine attacked them, the Ukrainian government that rode into power on the bayonets of radicals and neo-Nazis. This is a very alarming law. We have already discussed this with our colleagues, aides to the heads of states in the “Normandy format” and also in the Contact Group. I am convinced that here we may not back down and pander to the radicals, who are seeking to bury the Minsk Agreements.

There were lots of examples, when, in our understanding, the Donetsk and Lugansk republics manifested readiness for a compromise. For instance, under the Minsk Agreements, the law “on special status” was to be introduced prior to local elections. President Petr Poroshenko categorically opposed this, saying that, first, he wants to see who will be elected and then decide whether to grant them special status or not. From the point of view of democracy, this is, of course, a “fine position.” As a result, a compromise was agreed upon that the law “on special status” will come into force on a temporary basis on the date of the elections and will take full effect the day the OSCE circulates a report confirming that the elections were free and fair. This understanding was reached by the Normandy format leaders a year and a half ago, but up until now, it has not yet been put on paper either in the Normandy format at expert level or in the Contact Group.   

Question: What are the chances of UN peacekeepers being deployed in eastern Ukraine by March?

Sergey Lavrov: This depends on those who have not yet submitted a single practical amendment to the Russian draft resolution.

Our logic is very simple. The implementation of the Minsk Agreements is being monitored by the OSCE, which has established a special monitoring mission. There were concerns regarding the safety of the OSCE observers. President Putin suggested long ago that they be issued light weapons so that they would be better protected. The OSCE rejected the idea as unacceptable, because it does not have any experience of military peacekeeping operations. A while later, in September 2017, we submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council. It is very simple and directly connected to the Minsk Agreements, and involves the assignment of UN peacekeepers to protect OSCE observers no matter where they work. Our partners said it was a very good idea but proposed expanding the concept by replacing all provisions of the Minsk Agreements with a large and strong military structure disguised as a UN operation. They proposed deploying up to 40,000 armed peacekeepers, who would have not only small arms but also heavy weapons, who would have the latest military technology so as to assume control over the entire territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, create a provisional UN administration with a staff of 5,000 and decide all issues related to elections and special status for Donbass not via a direct dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk, as is stipulated in the UNSC resolution that approved the Minsk Agreements, but as the proposed international administration would deem necessary. This is the idea that is being promoted now.

Question: Is Russia for or against this idea?

Sergey Lavrov: Russia cannot support ideas that contradict the decisions of the UN’s top authority responsible for international peace and security. The resolution that approves the Minsk Agreements is binding on all sides, but Kiev has long been sabotaging it. If our American colleagues, for example, support this idea and hinder the establishment of a UN mission that would protect those who honour the Minsk Agreements, this will be very bad for international relations and for Ukraine. This would perpetuate the conflict in a state that suits the Kiev government. Kiev wants to maintain tension so as to show how harshly it can respond to the allegedly regular violations by Donetsk and Lugansk. The OSCE monitoring reports, which are published every week, indicate that neither side is honouring its commitments in full, but more Ukrainian heavy weapons are missing from the designated holding areas. This means that these heavy weapons are being used outside their storage sites to keep up the atmosphere of the war, which the Kiev authorities need to appease the radicals and to remain in power.

Question: Russia has surprised the world by reaching an agreement with Iran and Turkey over Syria. What do these three countries plan to do in Syria? Does Russia see Iran and Turkey as allies that can coordinate their policies to influence the situation in the Middle East?

Sergey Lavrov: We do not look so far into the future. At this point in time, we need to complete what we started in Syria when the Obama administration proved unable to implement the Russian-US arrangements on promoting a ceasefire. We had no choice but to work with those who keep their word and who, although they hold different views, agree to coordinate positions on a settlement that will preserve Syria as a united and territorially integral state. This is why we are working with our Iranian partners, who were invited to Syria by the legitimate government to help it fight terrorism, just as Russia was. Turkey has shown a similar readiness.

Our first summit, which was held in late 2016, led to the Astana process, which has helped lower the level of violence dramatically. The ceasefire is not perfect in the de-escalation zones, which have been established within the Astana format, but shooting is mostly reported in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. The reason for this is the remaining units of Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Americans tend to spare, as we have seen many times starting with the Obama administration. Unlike their attitude to ISIS, they have never directed their attacks at Jabhat al-Nusra. Of course, the Syrian army has to respond to provocations, for example, when the al-Nusra terrorists in Eastern Ghouta shoot at residential areas [in Damascus], including at the buildings of the Russian embassy and trade mission. Our American partners feel uncomfortable about refusing to denounce such acts of terrorism at the UN Security Council, but what can they do? This is their politically charged stand.

Overall, the level of violence has decreased radically, as I said. Moreover, everyone agrees that the most important recent event regarding Syria is the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, which has approved the 12 principles of the future state of Syria. It is the main achievement made at the congress. It is true that not all opposition groups were properly represented in Sochi, yet it was an unprecedented forum in terms of the number of Syrian groups represented at the congress. By the way, Mr Nasr Al-Hariri, the leader of the opposition group [the Syrian High Negotiations Committee or HNC] formed by Saudi Arabia, did not come to Sochi out of political considerations, but about one-third of HNC members attended the congress.

Question: Will all opposition leaders be involved in the process?

Sergey Lavrov: This issue should be dealt with in Geneva. We have helped the Geneva process twice. It started skidding in 2016, and nobody did anything to help it out. It only regained traction after we launched the Astana process. No consultations were held in Geneva for almost a year before UN representatives became more active ahead of the congress in Sochi. After the congress, which UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and his delegation attended, they praised the results of the congress and said that they would use them to formulate their proposals on helping the Syrians draft a new constitution.

I see this as a practical result. Coming to an agreement won’t be easy, because the government and the opposition hold different view on methods for promoting constitutional reforms. However, Russia, Turkey and Iran will help them. For example, we are preparing for the next meeting in Astana, this time at the level of [foreign] ministers. We hope to convene it in the first half of March. Preparations for it are ongoing, and we will see what else can be done within this trilateral format to help the UN do its job.

Question: And the last question to top off our interview. The FIFA World Cup will be held soon. I know that you are not just a football fan but that you also play football. Have you booked tickets for the finals? Can you predict who will win?

Sergey Lavrov: I will not make predictions, because victory will go to the strongest team. As for booking the tickets, I haven’t thought about it yet.

Question: Who will you cheer for?

Sergey Lavrov: For Russia, of course.

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Emergency phone number only for the citizens of Russia in emergency in India +91-81-3030-0551
Address:
Shantipath, Chanakyapuri,
New Delhi - 110021
Telephones:
(91-11) 2611-0640/41/42;
(91-11) 2687 38 02;
(91-11) 2687 37 99
E-mail:
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